December 31, 2008

12/31/09 Happy New Year everyone!

I was trying to figure out how to explain the holidays here when I read in Leslie & Nathan in Mongolia this week (they are Peace Corps volunteers) and I decided they said it pretty well, so here it is (but check out their blog some time).

We've been trying to figure out why there are Christmas trees and lights and "Jingle Bells" and George Micheal's "Last Christmas" playing non-stop wherever we go, but not only is there no Christ in Christmas, there's no Christmas in Christmas. All the fuss around here is about New Years or "Shin Jil". I've had the sneaking feeling this is a Russian thing - since most of the 20th century, Mongolia was closely aligned with Moscow.

Determined to get to the bottom of it, I brought it up over lunch with a Russian/English teacher last week. I asked him and his wife how long Mongolians had been celebrating New Year's. They agreed that they began celebrating this way when they were in the first grade. They're 54 now, so it's been about 48 years or so by their reckoning.

He explained that since Mongolia had such close ties to Russia, they gladly picked up these fun cultural things and celebrated them as their own. They giddily recounted their childhood plays and dances where she always played a dancing "Winter Girl", and one year he was "Grandfather Winter", complete with a big sack of presents, white beard and red outfit.

So, my suspicions were confirmed - it is a Russian thing. But why do the Russians not celebrate Christmas? Why does New Year's look so much like Christmas?

The answer lies in the Communist era with the Soviet suppression of religion and non-state oriented celebrations. According to this site:

"Before 1917, Christmas was celebrated in Russia in much the same way as it was in the rest of the world: on December 25, with Christmas trees and Christmas gifts, Saint Nicholas and the like. During the years of Communism after 1917, all formerly Christmas traditions were transferred to New Year's Eve, which became the traditional winter holiday. New Year's Eve is now to Russians what Christmas is to most people in the rest of the world, with one exception: there is no remnant of Christianity in the holiday. New Year's Eve is simply a chance to celebrate, to bring in the new year and get rid of the old. It is a chance to exchange gifts, have a day off and enjoy oneself."

The Mongolians (and Most Russians) continue to celebrate on the 31st of January, and from what we've heard, it's not the raucous debauchery many of us enjoy in the States, but a family affair just like we might recognize as Christmas. So, when your kids ask how Santa Claus can get all the way around the world in one night, you might tell them he does half the world, takes a week off to restock, and then does the other half around New Year's.

Well, the center had a 'end of year' party last Friday night and it sure was a blast. Not only was there good food (and chocolate) but the whole thing was such a heart-warming affair. After dinner the toasts began. And what seemed like tradition, after you gave a toast, you sang a song. Davaa said that Mongolia has more traditional songs than almost any other culture and all Mongolians are taught to sing them from a very early age. Most people would begin the song and then everyone would join in. They were mostly about mothers, the countryside, horses and Mongolia. After that, the music was turned up and we danced the night away. Good thing too as I think I burned off quite a bit of calories I had eaten during dinner with my 'wild man' dancing. I was even voted best male dancer of the evening. [laugh]

New Years lights on the stupa

On Saturday, one of the guards at the Center, Oyunbaatar (Oogii for short) invited me to his house. We took a 30-minute ride in a 'micro bus' which is a mini-van with about 20 people piled in. Oogii says it's a good place to live because it's easy to catch the bus, water isn't far to fetch, there's a market nearby and it's a lighted street to his house. It was a cozy home and it brought back memories of my grandmothers house when I was a kid. Oogii's wife Uugantsetseg and his daughter Uuyanga who is also one of my English students were cooking dinner. We ate a great dinner of butz with shredded carrots with garlic. His wife makes cans about 20 jars of pickles every year and also makes about 10 liters of cider syrup. The hot cider was incredible. Oogii also has two sons, Baterdene is 10 and 9-month-old Batbaatar is smothered with love by both dad and his older brother. Later we took a family picture then it was time for Oogii and I to catch another microbus back to the city center. I really had a wonderful time and it was kind of Oogii to share his home-life and family with me.

Uugantsetseg, Baterdene, Oyunbaatar, Batbaatar, Uuyanga

Then, another one of the Center's guards, Nyamgerel, invited to to visit his mother at her home in the countryside, about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. It was very cold but a beautifully sunny day. One the way, we picked up his sister and her granddaughter. We sat in the kitchen of this two-room house sipping hot tea and eating cookies. Then we went out to see the animals. His mother has cows (which have blankets tied to them to keep them warm) and Nyamgerel was there to buy another 55 goats. After we got them transferred to a holding pen, we went back to his mother's house for some lunch, hot buutz. Mmm. I hope I can visit again this spring and summer.

Nyamgerel's mother

Three generations of Mongolian women

And New Year's Eve was the TV Special "Where is Santa Claus?" on Education TV in Mongolia. And they also showed everyone celebrating New Year's at the station with a surprise visit from Santa Claus. Please, no autographs.

Can you tell I forgot my lines?

Santa makes a surprise visit to Education TV